Should the wearing of bicycle helmets be made compulsory in the UK?

I’m as sure as anyone can be that a bicycle helmet saved me from more serious injury, or worse, when I had a cycling accident in 2010. On a bright, clear, May morning, as I was coasting downhill on my Airnimal Chameleon folding bike, a jogger emerged from between parked vehicles directly into my path. He didn’t even cast a glance in my direction. As I swerved to avoid him, which I did reasonably successfully, I lost control of my bike. I hit the ground hard and slid across the road, only coming to a halt as the back of my head hit the corner of a raised kerb with enough impact to leave a deep dent about 3 inches long in the helmet and leave me unconscious on the tarmac. A doctor friend of mine who was riding behind me is also convinced that the helmet was a potential life save in this accident. None of the drama of a car crash, or getting caught in the left-hand blindspot of a lorry, but this simple accident, which happened at about 15 mph put me in hospital for two weeks and out of work for six. Unsurprisingly, I’m a very strong advocate of wearing a helmet when cycling. But then again I always have been, and perhaps it saved my life.

Meanwhile the arguments for an against compulsory helmet wearing rage on, some supported by “scientific” papers and others by anecdote or “common sense”. The most recent CTC campaign brief (which by its very title suggests that it comes from a position of bias) is called “Cycle helmets: An overview of the evidence.” It pushes the same tired old arguments we’ve been hearing for years and even throws in some statistical equations to bolster its credibility. You would have to devote months of study to really get to the truth about the quality of most of the evidence presented and I am sure there will holes in the methodology and/or conclusions of most the papers referenced. And don’t forget, when giving an overview of any evidence, you can be selective in exactly which evidence you choose to review. How much of the evidence in favour of wearing helmets ended up in the waste bin under the reviewer’s desk? It’s not unknown for a researcher to respond to the question, “What do you think the result will be?” with “What result would you like?” The CTC has a clearly stated position and it’s not going to publish evidence that contradicts that position. To be fair, this most recent paper does cite 140 references to others, in case you’ve nothing on your plate for the next couple of years. But, having reviewed a random sample, the relevance of some of these papers to the arguments presented do seem rather tenuous and a large number of them are for studies conducted outside of the UK, where cycling conditions are often totally different to those encountered on our roads.

Cycling helmet
Is it really not worth £50 to reduce your chances of injury in some cycling accidents?

Despite my advocacy for helmet wearing, I agree with the conclusions of a paper published in the Journal of Medical Ethics last year (2012) that argues convincingly against the imposition of a legal requirement to wear a cycling helmet, except perhaps in the case of children. In a paper entitled “Liberty or death; don’t tread on me“, authors Hooper and Spicer provide a very coherent case for civil liberties to be to taken into consideration, whilst acknowledging that helmets do provide a degree of protection against head injuries in some instances (as concluded by the BMA’s research). If over 30,000 smokers die of lung cancer and tens of thousands die from alcohol related diseases, why should we legislate for the 200 or so deaths and 2000 or so injuries that are inflicted on cyclists each year, particularly when most of these outcomes would not be prevented by helmets, when we don’t prevent people causing themselves serious harm in other ways? (By the way, if somebody cycles for 50 years, don’t the numbers become a bit more scary: 10,000 deaths and 100,000 serious injuries over that period.)

I will always wear a cycling helmet because I believe I have benefited from that practice and may well do so again in the future. I would much rather that somebody took up cycling than be put off by a legal requirement to wear a helment, and we all have a duty to our children to do everything we can to protect them. I’m in the fortunate position that the cost of a helmet does not deter me from cycling at all, but I recognise that for some it probably does. I would rather they cycled without a helmet than not at all, so long as they understand that the head is a pretty important piece of kit, and of far greater value than the price of a helment. It’s also the heaviest part of the body and striking the ground with it is more than a little risky.

When I see others cycling without helmets, I don’t consider them to stupid. However, I do think that their decision is unwise and I will  encourage them to reconsider. In this controversial matter, doing what we believe to be right does not mean imposing our opinions on others through legislative process. I just wish the CTC would stop clouding the issues with irrelevant data, and start promoting helmet use in a positive way. Or maybe the organisation is frightened of giving the government a stick to beat them with: “You think it’s important for cyclists to wear helmets, so why shouldn’t we compel them to do so?”

After the accident I mentioned at the start of this post, I was very ably supported by the CTC’s legal firm in gaining significant compensation from the jogger for the injuries I suffered. (Incidentally, the guy at no stage during my extended and painful recovery ever bothered to enquire about the state I was in, or even if I had survived the fall – despite the fact that was unconscious on the ground after the event.) The final irony of this story is that I was advised by Paul Kitson, the CTC’s legal eagle at Russel Jones & Walker, that if I had not been wearing a helmet, I may have received a lower level of compensation due to contributory negligence. How do you square that with the CTC’s neutral stance on the subject?

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